By Michael V. Cusenza
Several City enforcement agencies this week began writing civil, not criminal, summonses for many low-level quality of life offenses outlined in the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law last June.
The law gives the Police Department and other agencies the option to issue a civil summons that is filed with the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, instead of a criminal summons which is filed in NYC Criminal Court. The CJRA also makes community service a penalty option for those summonses that are contested at in-person OATH hearings.
“For too long, our criminal justice system was broken and it was time we took action,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said last year after the Council voted in favor of the historic measure. “The Criminal Justice Reform Act will prevent tens of thousands of people from getting a criminal record for low-level, non-violent offenses and over its lifetime it is going to change trajectories for countless New Yorkers.”
The NYPD, Parks Department, Sanitation Department and the Department of Environmental Protection may write civil summonses for violations covered by the CJRA. Those violations include: Drinking in public; public urination; unreasonable noise; littering; spitting; being in park after dark; operating a speaker in a park without a permit; playing an instrument during unauthorized hours in the park.
“A minor nonviolent act of poor judgment should not determine one’s destiny. Today, we are making sure that key low-level offenses are enforced appropriately – without sacrificing our city’s quality of life or our residents’ safety,” de Blasio said when he signed the bill into law.
The CJRA creates “more proportional penalties” for certain crimes, according to the Council. These offenses will continue to be illegal, the Council pointed out; however, the CJRA will establish that the preferred venue for pursuing penalties for these offenses will be in civil, rather than criminal court.
Long-time opponents to the CJRA, including Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), have decried it as an affront to quality of life.
“These bills will only diminish our ability to keep our city clean and safe,” he said last year. “Issuing summonses in lieu of enforcing the law is like giving a slap on the wrist to offenders and also a slap in the face to the taxpaying, law abiding citizens of the Big Apple.”
Then-Police Commissioner Bill Bratton disagreed with Ulrich.
“We have worked closely with the Mayor, the Speaker and the Council on this legislation. The new legislation will allow the NYPD to use the full range of enforcement tools we currently have to address these offenses, while still providing us with the additional option to issue a civil summons instead of a criminal summons or arrest in appropriate circumstances,” Bratton said. “This legislation advances the many steps the NYPD has taken to implement precision policing in all communities throughout the City.”
By Michael V. Cusenza